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Why Narcissists, Manipulators & Psychopaths Get Power

Samantha Sutton, PhD
Biological Engineer By Samantha Sutton, PhD
Biological Engineer
Samantha Sutton has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from MIT as a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellow. She has presented her life design philosophy to companies such as Google and the National Cancer Institute as well as universities like Duke, Stanford, and Yale.

Do you work with someone who is toxic, but who nevertheless seems to rise through the ranks faster than everyone else? To the point that you doubt that the world is a fair place that rewards good instead of bad?

Is this person:

  • Narcissistic: charming, and would do just about anything to look good in order advance themselves?
  • Manipulative: skilled at getting people to do what they want, sometimes by lying or forming alliances?
  • Anti-social: lacking empathy for others or remorse for their actions?

If so, you're not alone. In a recent report in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, researchers found that people who have the “Dark Triad” of personality traits — narcissism, manipulation, and psychopathy — may advance their careers more quickly than those who do not.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Someone who is narcissistic believes that they are great, and will put their own needs and desires above all else. Someone who is manipulative knows how to get what they want. And someone who is a psychopath isn’t weighed down by regret or consideration of others.

So, at first blush, it would make sense that people with the Dark Triad could relentlessly climb up the corporate ladder.

The good news is that the same traits that got these people to the top may be their very undoing. At some point, Dark Triad leaders need to build strong relationships in order to get things done, and they simply cannot.

For example, I coached a Dark Triad CEO who started his company based on a great idea and good connections. However, now that the company is up and running, his employees fear him and feel demoralized. He can’t retain top talent, and his company is faltering.

The fact that a Dark Triad leader is eventually headed for demise is likely a small consolation, however, if you currently work with one of these people on a daily basis.

Aside from working with HR to get the person removed, which may not always be possible, here are some ways you can deal with Dark Triad leaders so that their toxicity impacts you as minimally as possible.

1. Stay true to your values.

At some point, your Dark Triad coworker might try to convince you to ally with them. They might be charming, flattering, and know all of the best ways to convince you. Before working with them, take a moment to remind yourself of what you stand for. What do you value? How do you want to be "known" in the workplace? Does this new proposition align with that? If it doesn’t, then stay away.

2. Play the long game.

Dark Triad leaders are great at short-term gains, but as we all know, life is long. Instead of getting stung by the immediate drama around that person, think about what you need to build in the long run in order to have a successful career: keen expertise, strong relationships, and a reputation for being kind, trustworthy, honest person. Your Dark Triad coworker may make your life miserable in the short term, but you will be the one standing when they eventually implode.

3. Pay attention to their past.

Sometimes it’s hard to determine if someone is a Dark Triad coworker or not. After all, they are charming and manipulative, so they can be quite appealing at times. Even if you can’t see their negative traits for yourself, look at their past.

  • Do they have multiple burnt bridges?
  • Do they have a list of “bad people” who they disdain?
  • Do they never acknowledge their role in failures from the past?
  • Do people from their past not speak highly of them, and never come back for coffee?

If the answer to many of these questions is “yes,” then you should be suspicious.

4. Speak and act as if everyone were watching.

One of the tactics that Dark Triad leaders employ is to use gossip, back-stabbing, and shifting alliances to get what they want. Don’t get caught in their games, because anything you say or do may be eventually used against you. If you speak and act as if everyone could hear, then you'll stay above any eventual frays.

5. Document everything.

Save every toxic email, and make note of occasions when the Dark Triad person says or does something that crosses the line of what is professional. Get as much as you can in writing. Put it all in a folder somewhere, and then let it go. This serves two purposes: (1) you will have evidence if it’s ever needed for HR or legal reasons, and (2) you can symbolically cleanse yourself of the person by putting their words and deeds far away from you.

6. Don’t take it personally.

It can sting to be manipulated, used, or disregarded. But don’t take it personally. Dogs bite, bees sting, and Dark Triad people poison. It's just what they do.

7. Be inspired by them.

Yes, you heard me right. What I have found is that these Dark Triad traits, when taken in small doses, can be positive. Manipulation can be a great skill for navigating complex situations to achieve goals. Narcissism can rally people to believe in a vision. Lacking guilt means that you aren’t weighed down by regret or remorse, so you can pick yourself up quickly after failures and charge forward. These are all good things if they are done to benefit yourself AND others.

Do you have a Dark Triad coworker in your life? Which of these strategies will you use to deal with them? Write me a note and share!

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